My Greatest Mistake
I've made many mistakes in my life. But probably one of the most consequential, at least in terms of Jewish thought, was my failure to have sufficient expertise in the topic of Torah and science during the Great Controversy of 2004-2005. It was a period when I had a unique power to directly and indirectly get people to talk about particular topics and sources, and I messed it up.
Had I possessed sufficient expertise, I would have realized that the whole framing of the discussion regarding Chazal being mistaken in their statements about the natural world was wrong. It was purportedly about the legitimacy of following the statements of authorities such as Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam and Rav Hirsch. My opponents dismissed such sources as forgeries, or as an obscure minority view that no longer had any validity. The mainstream mesorah, they insisted, is that Chazal's statements about the natural world are divinely-inspired and cannot be mistaken.
But there is a single passage in the Gemara which unequivocally proves otherwise. I'm talking, of course, about the topic of the sun's path at night. Here you have a statement by Chazal - that the sun doubles back and travels behind the opaque dome of the sky - which is certainly not correct. No less than Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi even observes that it is not correct. And all the Geonim and Rishonim, without any exception whatsoever, interpreted this passage literally, as a discussion about astronomy. It's only beginning in the 16th century that various authorities reinterpreted the Gemara to absolve Chazal of being mistaken. And even after that period, there were still plenty of authorities who maintained the classical, traditional understanding of the Gemara (which is also, of course, the one which is by far the most reasonable).
So, those who claim that it is forbidden to say that Chazal erred in their statements about the natural world, are themselves doing something much worse than what they accused me of doing. Not only are they going against the mainstream interpretation - they are attempting to entirely delegitimize it!
Sixteen years ago, I missed my chance to get people to confront this topic. But there's another opportunity. Daf Yomi reaches this topic on this coming Tuesday! And so I have now prepared a single page which clearly summarizes the topic - including observing that notwithstanding the mainstream, classical approach being to learn this Gemara according to its straightforward meaning, a number of recent rabbinic authorities have declared this to be heretical. They might be afraid to acknowledge the positions that I cite, but I'm not afraid to cite their position.
You can download the page in PDF format at this link. Please circulate it, especially to those learning Daf Yomi!
A full-length discussion of the topic of the sun's path at night can be found in my new book, Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought. The book can be purchased from the museum website, with proceeds going to the museum.